UK

Rebecca Saunders – traces (UK/Austrian Premières)

Posted on by 5:4 in Anniversaries, Lent Series, Premières | 10 Comments

Rebecca Saunders at 50Rebecca Saunders turned 50 towards the end of last year, so to mark this milestone the 5:4 Lent Series will this year be dedicated to her music. Over the course of the next six weeks, i’ll be looking at a number of her pieces in some detail, as well as providing a survey of her work as represented by CDs and downloads. Although Saunders is British born, her music is neglected in the UK; with the exception of Huddersfield, which has consistently provided a platform for her, performances in Britain are infrequent, and premières – notwithstanding last month’s at the Wigmore Hall, a real rarity – are virtually non-existent. It’s perhaps not surprising that Saunders’ music should be better known on the continent, particularly in Germany where she has long resided, but it’s disappointing (though not surprising) that one of the UK’s most renowned and radical compositional figures should be so ignored on her home turf. Furthermore, there has been relatively little serious discussion of her work, so my hope is that this series can go some way to improving that situation.

i’m going to begin with traces, a work that originally dates back to 2006 but was revised in 2009, a process that bumped it up from being for chamber to symphony orchestra. One reasonably expects different performances of the same piece to shed new light and tease out extra details, but in the case of traces that’s true to a surprising degree. i first got to know the piece from the UK première at the 2009 Proms, but some time after i heard a broadcast of the Austrian première and realised i hadn’t really got to know it at all, as it sounded so different. More recently, there was a third opportunity to hear the work when it was performed in Glasgow in 2015 (possibly the Scottish première), which only confirmed the fact that there’s something about traces that makes it seem almost entirely reinvented with each new performance – or, and this is perhaps more pertinent, that there’s something akin to a game of Chinese whispers going on. Read more

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Wigmore Hall, London: Rebecca Saunders – Unbreathed (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Premières | 3 Comments

Rebecca Saunders turned 50 towards the end of last year, so 2018 effectively counts as her anniversary year, and the celebrations began last Thursday in London at the Wigmore Hall, with the world première of her new string quartet, Unbreathed, by Quatuor Diotima. The occasion was notable in no small part due to the fact that, despite being one of the UK’s most renowned composers, her work is rarely heard here. Premières are rarer still, with most of them taking place in Huddersfield; the last time London saw a Saunders world première was ten years ago with the first version of Chroma, performed at Tate Modern, and the ones before that date back to the mid-1990s.

Quatuor Diotima positioned Unbreathed betwixt two other works, Szymanowski’s 1927 Second Quartet and Schubert’s massive String Quartet No. 15 in G, composed late in his life. The Szymanowski was odd when it wasn’t being just plain meh, whereas the Schubert was a fascinating and at times excruciating tl;dr study in how far material could be pushed and worked while still holding onto its integrity (personally, i thought the integrity was emphatically broken, but in some ways that only added to the experience). While the Diotima’s performance of both these works was outstanding (and, in the case of the Schubert, herculean), it was more telling in the way it provided an interesting and useful perspective on the Saunders, particularly in terms of the nature and precision of pitch. Read more

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Brian Ferneyhough – Fanfare for Klaus Huber

Posted on by 5:4 in Anniversaries | Leave a comment

Today is the 75th birthday of one of the UK’s most consistently remarkable, bewildering, surprising and moving composers, Brian Ferneyhough. By way of a miniature celebration, here are two recordings of his shortest composition, Fanfare for Klaus Huber for two percussionists. It’s a piece i feel somewhat connected to: composed in 1987, the first performance took place in December 1989, at the Musikhochscule in Freiburg (by Ensemble Recherche), and the UK première was organised by myself, given at the Birmingham Conservatoire on 12 December 1996, by Thallein Ensemble (whom i was directing at the time). The work lasts for only a minute, and is concerned with presenting ‘unique sonorities’ as Ferneyhough describes them, each of which is only heard once. From a timbral perspective, this means that each performance of the Fanfare is likely to sound entirely unique, though structurally it falls into five clear sections.

These two performances of the piece were given by the Guildhall Percussion Ensemble as part of the Barbican’s ‘Total Immersion: Percussion!’ day in January 2015. The range of sonorities used rather wonderfully gives the impression that the players were wielding the innards of assorted clocks and timepieces, an impression strengthened by the way Ferneyhough progressively slows down the durations in several of the sections, which here sound like clockwork mechanisms winding down. Much of the writing is very delicate, occasionally punctuated with loud accents, manifesting in these performances via crash cymbals, some particularly strident toms and a rather spectacular whistle. Read more

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Kantos Chamber Choir – The Silver Stars at Play

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas, CD/Digital releases, Seasonal | 1 Comment

‘Tis the season and all that, and while the majority of festive new releases are concerned with reheating the usual fare, there’s one new Christmas disc that i particularly want to single out. Called The Silver Stars at Play, it’s a collection of 23 contemporary Christmas carol settings, performed by the Manchester-based Kantos Chamber Choir, conducted by the choir’s founder Elspeth Slorach. i won’t go into my usual level of depth about the disc due to the fact it includes a setting of my own, and while i’ve long regarded objectivity and impartiality to be pretty mythical and irrelevant, for obvious personal reasons i would of course love everyone to go out and support the disc by buying as many copies as possible.

That being said, while music of this ilk is inevitably going to be a somewhat polarising affair, what makes this collection so worthwhile is its general avoidance of the kind of mawkish sentimentality and blank enthusiasm that one encounters in far, far too much Christmas music. In place of the former are broad, rich harmonic palettes, tonal but occasionally wayward. Andrew Cusworth‘s Of a rose synge we is the most sumptuous example of this, as well as being the most externally calm, though everything about it suggests inner joy and ecstasy. Matthew Coleridge‘s short but expansive and beautiful Balulalow is only marginally less lush, flirting with (but, mercifully, not embracing) the kind of harmonic writing redolent of US choral composers. John Turner‘s brave attempt at a new setting of Away in a Manger (retaining the established rhythmic scheme) is simpler, as is Peter Parshall‘s That yongë child, to gorgeously tranquil effect, while another lullaby, Mark Hewitt‘s Silent Night, rather nonchalantly sets out as though it’s nothing to do with the original carol before a number of dropped hints lead to a thorough reworking of it, its harmonies and rhythms both wonderfully convoluted. My own Infant holy, Infant lowly stays true to the original Polish melody (though using the correct original descending line as opposed to the misprinted version that one usually hears), with new harmonies designed to gently emphasise elements of the text.

However, it’s not all blissed-out devotions and adoration. Read more

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HCMF revisited: Laurence Crane – Movement for 10 musicians

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One of the awkward aspects of attending the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival arises from the fact that, when choosing which concerts to attend, there’s an unavoidable fear that one will inevitably miss something fantastically memorable and/or stunningly ground-breaking. The next piece in my HCMF revisitings is a case in point, from a concert i ended up kicking myself for missing in 2013. The work began life in 2002 as Movement for Ensemble, composed for Dutch ensemble Orkest de Ereprijs who presented it at that year’s Gaudeamus Music Week. The following year another Dutch group, The Ives Ensemble, commissioned a slimmed-down version of the piece for a series of performances in conjunction with Rotterdam Dance Works, whereupon it became Movement for 10 musicians.

The entire piece is made from just three very basic ideas:

  • three chords, rising up a scale, emphasising the interval of a 6th, over a sustained pitch;
  • two chords, falling a semitone, with shared pivot notes;
  • a two-octave rising diatonic scale, in octaves, over a sustained pitch.

It unfolds like a cross between Ravel’s Bolero and Howard Skempton’s Lento. Crane repeats the first two of these ideas numerous times in groups of 2, 4 and 6, but despite how obvious these repetitions are, and the structural blocks they form, the piece is not first and foremost about this. Harmony is what ultimately demarcates the work’s overall structure, which falls broadly into four sections. Crane positions the music at a cadential liminal point, founded upon a tonality of E – floating between major and minor – with regular suspended fourths and sevenths that push and tilt it towards the key of A. Three of the work’s four sections do actually end with this cadence, though the way the chord of A is rendered – enriched with sevenths and ninths, but lacking a major or minor third – lends it both a harmonic conviction and neutrality that are entirely in keeping with the tonal fluidity that pervades the piece. Read more

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HCMF revisited: Michael Cutting – I AM A STRANGE LOOP V (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in HCMF, Premières | 1 Comment

In just five days’ time, this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival gets going. That’s a big deal anyway, but this is its 40th edition, so there’s even more cause than usual for celebration. As a warm-up, i’m going to spend this week revisiting a few of the more memorable pieces from the last few festivals. The recitals given by pianist Richard Uttley have been for me some of the most exciting HCMF concerts in recent years, always presenting a thoroughly unpredictable collection of works embracing both the lyrical and experimental aspects of the instrument (and of Uttley himself). At HCMF 2016, he gave the first performance of Michael Cutting‘s I AM A STRANGE LOOP V.

It’s the second piece Cutting has written for Uttley that involves the use of a Fender Rhodes piano. The first, This is Not a Faux Wood Keyboard (premièred by Uttley at HCMF 2015), captured and harnessed the piano’s actions through use of a loop pedal. For I AM A STRANGE LOOP V, this premise has been expanded by utilising a pair of reel-to-reel tape machines. In each of the work’s four movements, Uttley is required to record portions of his performance, which are then played back while additional material is played. In practice, the two tape machines become second and third instruments in their own right, leading to interesting and unpredictable passages of 2- and 3-part semi-recycled counterpoint. Read more

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Monty Adkins – Shadows and Reflections

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases | 2 Comments

An interesting aspect of what i’ve been calling ‘steady statism‘ is the relationship it has with the idea of stasis. What is a musical stasis? Considering that music unfolds in time, isn’t it an oxymoronic idea? Furthermore, is such a hypothetical stasis intentional (objective) or perceptional (subjective) – or both? When writing about Markus Reuter’s Falling for Ascension, i remarked about one of the fundamental characteristics of steady statism: behavioural stasis, where the music changes over time but its underlying mode of operation – the compositional processes that lead to the musical material – remains essentially static, a system out of which musical outcomes emerge. More recently, i’ve been reflecting on the other kind, perceptional stases, where the emphasis is on extreme stillness of utterance, which may or may not be (or appear to be) the product of a behavioural stasis.

A striking example of this can be heard on Monty AdkinsShadows and Reflections, released a couple of months ago on the Crónica label. This album was one i’d been anticipating for a while; Adkins spoke about it briefly during the Dialogue we recorded together in the spring, explaining how it was inspired in part by the process of painter Gerhard Richter:

…it’s the way in which he chooses certain types of colours on his squeegee, and then draws them very slowly down the canvas. So one of the things i’ve been working on recently is how you could actually compose very short fragments of material and then slow them down, and then, as he does, layer them on top of one another. So i’ve just finished a long, 40-minute piece, and that piece is made up of six three-minute pieces, and what I did was slow those pieces down, just as Richter would take very specific parts of the paint, and then slowly draw those across and add extra layers on the canvas. So that piece was drawn out of the technique of his paintings. [… It has] no gesture in it at all, which is quite unusual for me […] it does go somewhere but it’s pushing that to the absolute extreme: out of forty minutes, the main thing happens at thirty-two minutes. And I find, [when] you get to that point, there’s almost a sense of ecstasy.

This latter aspect is a familiar Adkins trope, one i’ve remarked upon numerous times previously, where the timing of a gesture or sound is not merely pivotal but transformative, making one reappraise much if not all that went before. But my anticipation for Shadows and Reflections was particularly piqued by the idea of it being essentially bereft of gesture, suggesting an altogether more ‘flat’ sonic journey. Read more

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